By: Morgan Urtso, @morganurtso
NFL media and Twitter alike are ablaze this week with bold predictions, assumptions, and analysis for Sunday night’s Super Wildcard Weekend matchup featuring the 3-seed Pittsburgh Steelers hosting the 6-seed Cleveland Browns at home. A fire fueled by a long-standing rivalry (I use this term loosely) between the two teams is only gassed up by the media’s controversial and, quite honestly irresponsible, analysis of JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s statement earlier this week.
Browns players are happy to use anything these days as “bulletin board material,” (see: Mack Wilson‘s Twitter) especially in a game where they are a 6-point underdog, without Head Coach Kevin Stefanski, and putting up a depleted roster thanks in large part to their inability to follow Covid-19 protocol. Let’s call it what it is: no other team is suffering from an outbreak as debilitating as this one the first week of playoffs. Then again, no other team is awaiting felony charges for drag racing in the streets of Cleveland, but the Browns’ ass-backwards priorities are not the Steelers’ problem.
I’ve seen too much overt confidence that this game is a gimme. Giftwrapped. Signed, sealed, and delivered to the South Side facility’s doorstep. Playing with house money.
Nah. Pump the brakes, everybody. Haaaaave you met the Steelers? Let’s act like we’ve been here before.
While I do believe there is little excuse for the Steelers to lose on Sunday, did we learn nothing from Al Pacino? Nothing is a sure thing. Any. Given. Sunday. The Steelers need to bring everything to Heinz Field this week. They cannot afford the slow start, the terrible play calling, the missed blocks, the drops, the turnovers, the missed passes. They can’t rely on the defense to compensate for the offense’s inability to get in the endzone. They can’t miss textbook tackles. Pacino said it: the margin for error is STILL small, this game is STILL won in the inches.
It’s easy to get lost in the headlines of the past several days, with new positives clocking in by the hour in Cleveland. But it’s not as bad as it seems for the Browns. Why? Let’s break this down.
On Saturday morning, the Browns were able to activate three players from the Covid-19 playlist, safety Ronnie Harrison, TE Harrison Bryant, and LB Malcolm Smith. RT Jack Conklin remains questionable with an undisclosed illness, but I expect for him to travel separately and play Sunday. Cleveland will suit up without CBs Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson, OL Joel Bitonio, and WR KhaDarel Hodge. So yes, they are thin in some areas, but this is still a team returning to playoffs for the first time since 2002. To say they’re hungry would be an understatement. Don’t expect them to willingly roll over and hold the L.
Essentially, what I’m saying is this: in a year where the world’s favorite word to describe the Steelers is “frauds,” there is no room for error in the post-season. Not even against a depleted Browns lineup. Especially not against a depleted Browns lineup.
It is hard to win in the NFL. I’ll repeat it again because too many people take the tradition of winning in Pittsburgh for granted and don’t intimately understand the competitive climate of the National Football League: IT IS HARD TO WIN IN THE NFL. We are talking about elite athletes. The best of the best. Less than .00001% of the population makes it to the highest level of this sport. A backup’s backup is still top tier. We cannot afford to conveniently ignore that fact.
So yes, a Steelers loss on Sunday to the team that will take the field for the Browns would be monumentally embarrassing. It would prove right the media, the insufferable Colin Cowherd, and the rest of the league, when they called us the worst 11-0 team in history. It would be all the bulletin board material Cleveland would ever need. Steelers Twitter would spontaneously combust. It would be nearly inexcusable and heads should roll if it somehow plays out that way. But, it’s not impossible, so let’s collectively humble ourselves and stop acting like it is.
Any. Given. Sunday. Watch the inches.